One of our greatest challenges is the rapid transition to a carbon-neutral energy future. Alberta, with vast petroleum resources and a key role in Canada’s current economy, embodies this global challenge of balancing environmental, economic and energy security goals – the “energy trilemma.”
The proposition that limiting future global warming requires holding atmospheric CO2 concentrations below a target value leads inexorably to the conclusion that the carbon in most of the world’s fossil fuels, has to remain underground. Most fossil fuel resources would be stranded, as so would the economic wealth associated with those resources – unless resource development can be accomplished by maintaining a fossil fuel industry with a reduced and eventually eliminated environmental footprint. If achievable, there are potential political and economic benefits evident, that could greatly accelerate broader, desirable energy system changes.
In this alternate paradigm, petroleum reservoirs might play a transitional role as storehouses of chemical energy, but instead of utilizing that energy by surface combustion, an alternative is to convert it into other forms of chemical or electrical energy. By carrying out this conversion in situ, CO2 can be left in the reservoir. By choosing energy forms such as hydrogen, hydrogen rich fuels or electricity, that emit no CO2 when used to power our machines and devices, we can in principle, continue to derive value from fossil fuel resources and provide economic drivers for a complete and rapid transformation of our energy supply systems and economies. We examine the technical and political aspects of this route emphasizing the need for safeguards against emergent issues that might slow a rapid transition towards dominant renewable energy sources in the medium and long terms. We illustrate routes using both hydrogen and electricity and compare the prospects of these two technology sets.
Steve Larter is Canada Research Chair and Professor of Petroleum Geology at the University of Calgary, Department of Geoscience. Steve’s research has focussed on organic and petroleum geochemistry and more recently on studies of the deep subsurface biosphere where his work helped define microbial processes in oilfields and the base of the deep crustal biosphere. He has also worked on possible transition technologies for zero emission energy recovery, including direct hydrogen or electricity production, from oil and gas fields and for capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide at large scale. Steve cofounded Gushor Inc.(now part of Schlumberger), a reservoir fluid characterization and technology, spinoff company in 2006, Profero Energy Inc, a biotechnology company in 2008 and Aphorist Inc., a mass spectrometry company in 2012. Steve is a Fellow of the Royal Society(FRS), a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada(FRSC), a Fellow of the Geological Society(FGS) and a Foreign Member of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Arts(DNVA). He is also a board member of CMC Research Institutes and interim chair.